Let’s say you’re a massive cheese producer, and the methods you use to make cheese have been closely guarded traditions since the Middle Ages. How do you prevent knockoff cheeses from stealing your glory—and your good reputation?
Normal methods used by other types of producers don’t really apply. Stamping serial numbers and slapping logos and trademarks on wheels that are going to be cut into small pieces before sale simply doesn’t work. What’s left instead is to harness one of the building blocks that brings the world great (and even less-than-great) cheeses in the first place: bacteria.
Like prosciutto di Parma, champagne, or even Parmigiano Reggiano, the most iconic Swiss cheeses are made according to very strict sets of standards.
Bloomberg reports that Tete de Moine may only be made with milk from cows within a particular 12.4-mile radius in the Jura region of Switzerland. Only eight dairies currently produce this style of cheese. Additionally, the cows must only feed on fresh grass and hay, not silage. Emmental and Gruyere regulations are just as specific.
Since none of these historic cheese styles allow the use of artificial ingredients, cheese makers and scientists had to get creative in finding ways to inoculate their legit cheesy charges with bacterial markers.
In 2011, after a decade of scientific experimentation to isolate bacteria that wouldn’t alter the smell, taste, or texture of the cheese in any way, Emmental finally got its own bacterial fingerprint. As the most widely exported Swiss cheese, this was an important step in impeding counterfeit Swiss cheeses.
Here’s a video to give some insight into the making of legit Emmental:
Is Swiss cheese forgery really a problem? Apparently so. According to Bloomberg, the Switzerland Cheese Marketing Association estimates that about 10% of supposed Emmental on grocery store shelves is actually fake.
Part of the reason is that the Swiss franc has risen in value, driving up exchange rates and making Swiss cheeses exported elsewhere more expensive. What gets bootlegged most in any industry? Perceived luxury items that people can’t easily afford.
Also, adhering to the strict standards by which these cheeses must legally be made isn’t cheap. That’s what sets them apart in terms of quality, but it’s also a big reason why they’re so expensive. Feeding those cows something cheaper than allowing them to graze on fresh grass and hay might help bottom lines—both for the cheese company and for the consumer—but it would also seriously dilute (or even extract) the unique character of the cheese.
Lead scientist Deborah Rollier says the process for checking if marked cheeses are legit is simple:
Spot checks on marked cheeses are done at random from supermarket samples. This testing functions in conjunction with the protective labeling scheme Swiss authorities use for legit Swiss cheeses, which allows both they and the European Union to take legal action against fromage forgers.
What about developing bacterial protection for other Swiss cheeses? Tete de Moine got an official bacterial marker in 2013, and scientists are currently working on specific ones for Gruyere and Sbrinz.